Of milk and honey II

I have not posted for a while. I got ‘distracted’ writing blog posts on King Attalus’ interest in pharmacology for the Recipes Project and on the use of deer penis and deer antlers for Guerilla Archaeology. As promised though, I get back to ancient recipes with breastmilk. As I was saying, there hardly goes a week without headlines relating to breastfeeding. Last week, we were told not to bed-share with our babies because the risk of their dying was too great. There was quite a backlash to this report among breastfeeding communities. Let’s face it: bed-sharing or at least co-sleeping (having the baby very near in a cot) are almost essential for succesfull breastfeeding. Breastfed babies need milk several times at night, and having to get up, go to another room etc. each time this happens would be exhausting.

Most new mothers find it horrifying that breastfeeding their babies will mean getting ‘less’ sleep than bottle-feeding them. However, I have found that, onceI accepted this as normal, and just relaxed and dozed through night feeds, it was not that bad at all. In fact, getting up and making a bottle of formula is much more disruptive (I had to do that when I stopped feeding Big Boy T when he was one). Actually, I have noticed that since I have had children, I do not suffer from insomnia anymore. Perhaps, I have found a more natural rhythm for myself: one that involves frequent night-waking. Believe me, I am no Margaret Thatcher: I need quite a lot of sleep, but I perhaps need it spread over a 24-hour period rather than concentrated over 7-8 hours.

My milky cerate. Sorry for quality of picture - taken with mobile phone

My milky cerate. Sorry for quality of picture – taken with mobile phone

So breastmilk cures insomnia… sort of. According to Greek and Roman authors it cured many other ailments. In my previous blog I pointed out some ancient uses of breastmilk on its own: for sore eyes, earaches, and for stomachache. I can confirm (although this of course does not amount to any scientific experiment) that breastmilk does help when a baby has weepy eyes (which can happen quite regularly). One of my readers also pointed out that in Italy ‘grandmothers’ still recommend breastmilk for ear infections. And since breastfed babies tend to have fewer belly ailments than bottlefed babies, one can assume that breastmilk might help against stomach problems. I was really struck to see how inhibited the ancient recipes were: milk had to be taken really fresh, sometimes directly from the breast. Not a single ‘handy modesty cover’ in sight (by the way, these covers do not work. Most babies really dislike having their head covered, and you end up attracting more attention to yourself by using one of those).

Breastmilk also appears in more complex recipes, in particular in gynaecological contexts. Thus, the Hippocratic treatise Diseases of Women (a treatise transmitted under the name of Hippocrates, but most probably not by Hippocrates) recommends the following to expel the afterbirth:

Purges better the afterbirth of a woman in childbirth: fresh liver of a turtle still alive; crush in woman’s milk and pour iris perfume and wine; apply. (Diseases of Women 1.78)

Admittedly, this sounds a bit dodgy. This is the thing with ancient medicine: it is very tempting only to take the good stuff and reject anything that sounds a bit strange. But one should resist that urge and attempt to understand the rationale behind such remedies – if possible at all. Retention of the afterbirth is one of the most common – and dangerous – issues in childbirth, and desperate times might have called for desperate measures.

Breastmilk also figures in one of the fertility tests preserved in Diseases of Women:

Test to determine whether a woman will get pregnant, if you want to know if a woman will get pregnant: give her to drink butter and milk of a woman while fasting. If she burps, she will get pregnant. (Diseases of Women 2.214)

Sounds all a bit like wishful thinking. I mean, who would not burp when given butter to drink while fasting?

Less strange – by our modern standards – are recipes against inflammation and for cicatrisation, such as the following one, preserved in the Metrodora collection (dates uncertain):

Take the milk of a woman who has borne a male child and rose perfume. Mix together the same amount of each; heat up; take up into a pessary and apply to the mouth of the womb. Or crush the yolk of an egg with rose oil, take up into a pessary and apply. (Metrodora 4).

Similar recipes appear throughout Greek medical literature, and are meant to be used by men and women alike. A ‘genderless’ version of this remedy appears in Aetius:

When the ulcers have been thoroughly cleansed, one must use cicatrizing remedies: first those that are mild, then those that are stronger. Cicatrizing cerate: white wax, 3 ounces; excellent rose oil, 9 ounces. Melt on coals; let it cool down a bit; pour into a mortar; add some woman’s or ass’s milk and bruise with the pestle (if not available, use fresh goat’s milk). Soften until the preparation becomes white. Pour out the first milk and add some more; crush again. (Aetius 16.107).

Note how ‘normal’ breastmilk is considered: it is listed alongside ass’s and goat’s milk, as a readily available ingredient. In fact, the recipe is more exceptional in that it mentions the pestle: usually recipes name the mortar but not its accompanying tool.

Women in antiquity certainly had fewer rights than we have today, but maybe they realized that they had a form a power in producing milk that was not only nutritive but also had healing properties. Nowadays, on the other hand, breastfeeding women are encouraged to be discreet and modest. They are lured into buying ‘convenient’ breastfeeding tops and other covers. And they are constantly reminded that ‘when (not if) they choose to move on from breastfeeding’, formula will be there to save the day, with its added calcium, added iron, added omega 3, added vitamin D etc. Sad eh?

I gave Aetius’ recipe a go, but I must confess I used cow’s milk instead of breastmilk. The quantities listed in the original recipe are quite large, and I have decided to preserve the proportions rather than follow the exact amounts.

You will need:

–         10 g white wax

–         30 g oil (I used apricot kernel oil)

–         A few drops of rose absolute

–         Some milk


  1. Melt the wax and oil in the double boiler.
  2. When melted, take off the heat and let the preparation cool down a bit.
  3. Pour into a mortar.
  4. Add some milk. I added approximately 100 ml of milk. The wax and oil will immediately congeal when the cold milk is added. Mix the preparation vigorously.
  5. Add a few drops of rose absolute at this point.
  6. After a little while, pour out the first milk. Now add milk drop by drop and keep on mixing.
  7. The preparation will become quite light and fluffy.

    The preparation is becoming light and fluffy

    The preparation is becoming light and fluffy

Altogether, this is a very nice cream. However, since it is prepared with milk, I cannot keep it for long.

This entry was posted in Cosmetics, History of gynaecology, History of medicine, Homemade remedies and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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